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County commissioners oppose New Mexico Civil Rights Act

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The Chaves County Board of Commissioners vote Thursday for a resolution opposing House Bill 4, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which is now before the New Mexico Legislature. From left are Commissioner Jeff Bilberry, Commission Chairman Will Cavin and Interim County Manager Bill Williams. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Chaves County commissioners have once again made known their opposition to the proposed New Mexico Civil Rights Act, saying that the legislation as written could bankrupt public entities without providing the intended protections or reforms.

Commissioners voted 5-0 Thursday for Resolution 21-006, which spells out more than 16 reasons for opposition to House Bill 4, or the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, now before the New Mexico Legislature.

The bill received a “Do Pass” recommendation from the House State Government Elections and Indian Affairs Committee on Jan. 28. The House Judiciary Committee decided Friday to postpone consideration of the bill until its next meeting, expected to occur Monday. Committee members want people to have time to consider a committee version of the bill. That revision was expected to be posted Friday but was not available by press time.

“I just hope we can have some common sense occur up in Santa Fe with all of our legislators who can come together to see how bad this bill would be for the state of New Mexico, including all of our education, law enforcement, local communities, counties and governmental entities,” said Will Cavin, chairman of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners.

Sheriff Mike Herrington said he appreciated the commissioners’ decision because law enforcement is “capable of policing our own police.”

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“There are other ways to bring up the issues they brought up,” Herrington said, “and it does not mean making an officer liable himself. It means the agency is going to take care of the problems. We already have been doing that. There is no justification for this bill in any way.”

The proposed act intends for public bodies, not individual employees, to be held financially responsible for any damages awarded.

Chaves County Interim Manager Bill Williams said that copies of the county’s resolution will be sent to the New Mexico Counties association, which asked its members to oppose the bill; to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state government leaders; and to members of the state legislative contingent representing the county.

Commissioners already voted in November — again at the request of the New Mexico Counties group — to oppose the recommendations of the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission.

The commission was formed in 2020 by the Legislature to come up with recommendations to address state civil rights complaints, which often involve complaints about police officers or detention facility employees. The commission voted 5-4 for the legislative proposals that have been introduced as HB 4 in this year’s legislative session.

According to proponents of the act, New Mexico residents need a way to sue and collect damages for violations of their state constitutional rights by public bodies and their employees. The act would eliminate the “qualified immunity” defense that can now be used in cases alleging violations of federal civil rights by state public bodies. Qualified immunity shields the public entities and their employees from being found liable for actions or inactions alleged to have caused harm, unless it can be proven that the entities knew or should have known what they were doing would cause harm. The state of New Mexico also could not claim a sovereign immunity defense under the proposed law.

The act also would remove any caps for compensatory damage awards and would allow people who sue successfully to collect attorney fees and litigation costs. The New Mexico Tort Claims Act currently caps awards at $1.05 million, according to the county resolution. It also bars the awarding of legal fees.

According to a Fiscal Impact Report prepared for legislators, HB 4 could cost counties’ insurance fund and the state General Services Department public liability fund $40.4 million during the first three years. Opponents of the bill also said that it could open the door to thousands of school children suing school districts for alleged inadequacies of instruction. The majority of New Mexico Civil Rights Commission members who voted for the bill said that predictions of extremely high costs could not be proven and that concerns about lawsuits could have the beneficial effect of prompting better training, oversight and accountability.

The resolution approved by county commissioners stated that the law as written would destroy the balance that now exists between recovery of damages and protecting the public good. It stated that publicly funded entities could expect to see their insurance costs rise or have to pay to self-insure. The public would then bear the costs either through increased taxes or cuts in public services.

According to the resolution, better solutions would include providing additional funding for mental health and substance abuse problems that the resolution claims are often at the root of problematic interactions with law enforcement. More money could be provided to train and investigate law enforcement officers, the resolution states, and reform could occur to ensure that law enforcement officers found to have acted wrongly lose their certifications so that they are not “recycled” by other law enforcement units.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.